Skip to Main Content

Systematic literature searching

A guide to the search process for a systematic literature search


This guide is aimed at postgraduates who are undertaking a systematic literature review or rapid review in health and medicine related fields, and need help with the literature searching process.

If you are from another discipline, this guide may still be useful to understand the process.

This is not a intended to be a substitute for guidance provided for specific review methodologies or evidence synthesis techniques, such as Cochrane systematic reviews, for which there is an official Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions. Chapter 4 relates to Searching for and selecting studies.

You may also wish to review the Systematic Review LibGuide which includes guidance and a pathway for researchers producing their first Systematic Literature Review.

The literature search process

diagram showing the search process cycleThis guide will help students and staff undertaking a thorough review of the literature, whether as part of a dissertation or for a systematic review. While many of the examples are drawn from health, medicine and psychology, the principles apply to all subjects.

The search process is not linear but iterative. You will return to earlier stages as you search, read and evaluate. However, a classic systematic review protocol states clearly the search strategy ahead of conducting the final search and screening of results. 

  • Define your question
  • Formulate the search topic and create an initial search strategy
  • Identify the databases to use
  • Conduct your search in key databases
  • Review and test your results, and revise your search
  • Expand your search to include grey literature and cited references
  • "Hand-search" key journals and websites
  • Manage your results with EndNote (or other bibliographic management software).
  • Screen the titles and abstracts of your results against your inclusion and exclusion criteria, such as relevance to the question, study type
  • Obtain full text for included studies/papers to appraise and extract the data from for analysis
  • Record your search strategy and what you have done throughout the process
  • Keep up-to-date with new literature on your topic

DHR 523 Systematic review: webinar video

More literature searching videos